When we decided to open a school in Colorado Springs, the forest school format was our natural choice as we see tremendous benefits for children in free play in a natural outdoor setting. Some of these benefits are more obvious than others. So I decided to start a series of posts on our blog about why spending time outdoors for children is so critical and not just for their general physical development, but for their mental development as well as mental health.
In the first post in this series I wanted to share with you some studies which focused on the connection between shortsightedness (officially referred to as “myopia”) and a lack of the time spent outdoors.
Shortsightedness epidemic amongst children
I first learned about this connection while listening the incredible series of podcasts called “Nurture in Nature” by the wonderful Tania Moloney. In one of the podcasts it was mentioned that the rate of myopia (shortsightedness) in children in developed countries both in the West and in the East has been on the rise. And that in Singapore it has become so widespread that the government launched a national program to combat myopia by bringing children out of indoor spaces to spend more time outdoors.
At first I was surprised to hear about this connection. But of course, when children spend a majority of their time indoors they look and work with objects that are at relatively fixed distances from their eyes, the sizes and textures of objects aren’t as varied as what they would find outdoors, and indoor ambient light is also always the same, unlike the ever-varying light outside. To make things worse, many classrooms and daycare spaces have few or no windows — taking away from the already limited opportunities for children to turn their gaze on something in the distance, which is highly recommended by doctors for eye health.
Sadly, as our children grow older and are subjected to more structured time spent indoors working on their school work, these conditions only worsen.
Early myopia often leads to severe eye problems in adulthood
A multi-year study by the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC) and the Singapore Eye Research Institute (SERI), jointly conducted with the National University of Singapore (NUS), revealed that for every year decrease in the age that a child gets myopia, the severity of his or her short-sightedness in later childhood increases by 100 degrees. [source]
Shortsightedness can also cause children to experience headaches stemming from squinting and blurred vision.
The age of myopia onset is “the most important determining factor” of high myopia later in life, said Professor Seang-Mei Saw, head of the myopia unit at SERI. It outweighs other factors such as the number of books read, and even whether the child’s parents have myopia themselves. [source].
In another article, a doctor discusses other serious eye conditions that are more frequently starting to develop in early age groups, and are also linked to the early development of myopia in children.
“Many people don’t realise that high myopia leads to many eye problems later in adulthood including cataracts, glaucoma, retinal tears and macular degeneration,” said Dr Claudine Pang, an ophthalmologist at Asia Retina Eye Surgery Centre.
“In fact, I am seeing these diseases appearing at an earlier age among my patients.”
…”We should focus on myopia prevention in our children to prevent the occurrence of such eye diseases in the future.”[source]
Preventing myopia in children
“To prevent the “myopia boom”, children should spend at least two to three hours outdoors a day, said Prof Saw, as the light levels from the sun, even on a cloudy day, are much higher than the light level from artificial bulbs.” [source]
Studies show that an average of 2 to 3 hours a day of outdoor time for younger children may protect the child against myopia. Fortunately, Colorado Springs offers many great children’s parks where we can take our children. And Colorado’s wilderness isn’t more than 30 minutes away from most areas of Colorado Springs.
The outdoors not only offer constantly varying distance and detail needed for eye health, but apparently the quality and amount of outdoor light makes a great difference as well.
“The drastically higher light levels outdoors can release a chemical called dopamine in the eye that can stop the development of myopia… and keep the eye in a normal state,” said Prof Saw, who is the principal investigator of the study. [source]
Whether your child goes to a school or is home-schooled, get them to take a break after prolonged continuous near work activities. They can do this by looking at distant objects out of a window, going outside, or just taking a break. [source]